Christianity can lay claim to being the only truly global faith. Most religions emerge from a particular cultural and/or racial context, and stay by-and-large within that shaping.
This claim may sound controversial, but it is demonstrated by data coming out regularly from the Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project.
Nearly twice as many of the world’s living immigrants are Christian (106 million) then Muslim (58 million), with Hindu (10 million) the next closest; in other words, Christians today are more globally mobile than any other religious group.
“…the degree of influence of Christianity on Indigenous culture is offensively underrated…” – Greg Clarke
Furthermore, those mobile Christians are more evangelistic than any other faiths. The countries that they enter become more Christian in outlook and laws. Christian migrants keep to themselves less than other groups. I suggest, although I am speculating here, that this may have to do with the missionary nature of Christianity itself.
While it can certainly be said that the British Empire not only exported Christianity but Britishness as well, it did not take long for colonised countries to begin to assimilate Christianity into their existing cultures. Perhaps the finest example is the way in which African dance and Christian teaching are intertwined, but there are numerous examples around the world of the flexibility of Christian teaching such that it can be naturalised into local practices.
In Australia, Indigenous nations have absorbed biblical symbolism into their traditional art, song and dance, and the degree of influence of Christianity on Indigenous culture is offensively underrated (something that the recent art book Our Mob, God’s Story attempts to correct).
“…it is at the heart of Christianity to appeal to every tribe, nation, language and tongue…” – Greg Clarke
Ninety-nine per cent of Hindus are in Asia, so the Eastern religions certainly support my main thesis. But what of the spread of Islam? It is true that Islam arose in the Arabian Peninsula, but now two-thirds of Muslims are found in other regions.
Furthermore, only around a third of the world’s Jews still live in Israel. Doesn’t this indicate global faiths? Not really; these are geographical spreads, but Christianity has a unique, or at least unmatched, cultural spread.
This is largely to do with language. Christianity elevates no particular language or culture to divine status. In contrast, for the Muslim, the Quran is only properly divine in Arabic. And Christianity reinterprets the nationalism of Jewish religious expression (“God’s chosen people”) to describe every believer as a child of God, regardless of race or nationality.
The period of the Reformation in Europe, beginning 500 years ago this year, contains many theological disputes. But what is undisputed is that it heralded several centuries of Christianity spreading into new cultures, as the notion of translating the Bible into the vernacular took hold. This powerful idea, that God’s word could be understood by a common reader (or hearer) contributed hugely to the global advance of the Christian faith.
“Christianity is translatable, a nearly unique characteristic among religions.”
Why is this so? The simple answer may be that it is at the heart of Christianity to appeal to every tribe, nation, language and tongue. Those specific terms are used four times in the last book of the Bible, Revelation, to describe the kind of world that we are heading towards. The vision of heaven presented is a cosmopolis: a city with all the nations crowding in. It reveals a reversal of the linguistic divisions that the Tower of Babel judgment story of Genesis delivered. At the other end of the Bible, all the nations of the world speak the languages of heaven.
And this is why Bible translation makes such a difference. As another language group has access to the word of God, so Christianity deepens its roots. The next generation grows up on the Bible’s teachings. Translation also affirms the language and culture into which it is being done: your language is sufficient to carry the divine message; your culture, too, belongs to God.
Christianity is translatable, a nearly unique characteristic among religions. The great scholar of this topic, historian of religion Professor Lamin Sanneh, writes, “If, as early Christians believed, God is the universal source of life and truth, then they were obliged to pursue that conviction across cultures.” It is the very message of the gospel – that all people are created in the image of God, equally sinners, and equally forgiven through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ – that makes Christianity a universal faith. Every tribe, language and nation can and will understand that.
Greg Clarke is CEO of Bible Society Australia.